For all practice purposes, repetition is practice and vice versa; they are synonyms. Mastery of any subject or task requires that we practice or, simply put, we will not be very good at it. Yes, it is that simple. If a person desires either moderate or high skill levels at baseball, piano, engineering, playing a musical instrument, etc., a person must be willing to consistently practice the task. Of course, this revelation is certainly not earth shattering news. So, if there is little disagreement on the concept of required practice, why is the idea of math skill repetition in the public schools represented in such a distasteful manner?
Drill and Kill
‘Drill and Kill’ is a phrase generally associated with mathematics that I have heard used in the school system since the early 1990’s, and I imagine its utterance originates decades prior. From my understanding, the phrase implies that teachers who force students to complete the exact same task over and over will stifle the child’s educational curiosity and spirt, forevermore. As a retired elementary teacher, assistant principal, principal and central office administrator with over two decades of professional work in both Title 1 and non-Title 1 school settings, I have never met a colleague in any professional capacity that thought that requiring a child to complete the same mastered task over and over would ever be considered, ‘good teaching practice.’ However, if there is one thing I have observed at both school settings is a significant number of classroom teachers not providing a sufficient number of skill repetitions so students could master and own math content. In my professional opinion, insufficient instructional daily repetition of math facts and processing skills is not only poor teaching practice but it significantly lowers student achievement.
Repetitio est mater studiorum - or - Repetition is the Mother of Learning
There is no question from all human experience I have ever been associated that repetition is necessary if learning and mastery of a task will occur at any age. Due to my own indolent nature, I would be more than a little pleased if it only took one repetition to mastery any skill or human task I ever attempted. Wishful thinking, I am afraid. Hence, the central question to answer is, “How many times is sufficient to master a math skill in elementary school?” The answer based on my education and life experiences – It depends.
After working with elementary aged students for the crux of my public education career, there are basic guidelines listed below that I believe are empirically valid based on my own teaching and administrative experience. The estimated range of repetitions is associated with math fact and process skill mastery.
Talented and Gifted Students: Between 1 to 4 repetitions required
General Education Students: Between 8 and 18 repetitions required. Note: Use a pedagogical Spaced Repetition System for mathematics numeracy to meet threshold levels with relative ease and implement Formative Loop as a verification measure of student mastery.
Students Receiving Special Education Services: Varies on student disability – sometimes very few repetitions are required and sometimes hundreds – refer to child’s Individual Education Plan (IEP). The IEP is a legal document and must be followed to the letter.
Clearly, repetition or practice is necessary if students are to master their math facts and processing skills or this task would be an exception to all human learning experience. How educators can accomplish the repetition without resulting in drudgery for students is also possible. In math, social studies, science and grammar, the easiest means to accomplish this task is by using a 5 to 8 minute daily distributed or spiral review of previously presented content prior to the onset of the day’s core lesson – Spaced Repetition.